The Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia provides rehabilitation, hospice/palliative care and long-term skilled nursing to a community of elderly veterans.
They are frail, sick, alone, and badly in need of love and affection, which the hospital staff can hardly provide.
Thanks to Tom, the old veterans of the hospital are provided a low-stress, homelike environment.
Tom is a cat with a very special gift – empathy. According to hospital staff, Tom often has more empathy than the people around him.
He makes the sometimes-grim environment a little happier and homier with his purrs. He even comforts the staff who have to deal with death.
For example, after pronouncing a veteran dead, Tom stood by the hospital’s feet, Dr. Blake Lipscomb, and meowed knowingly – having spent time with the patient and his family before he passed.
And when someone he has been with for a long time die, Tom will seclude himself for a while to mourn. The hospital staff finds his “alone” moments tough because everyone would look for him.
“You can’t beat a good, purring, loving kitty cat,” says Army veteran James Gearhart, of Bassett, Virginia, in an interview with TODAY. “Tom knows when someone is having a hard time. He laid on my bed a lot and I rubbed and scratched him the way cats like,” he added.
Of course there are people who just don’t love cats, while some are allergic to cat hair. So the hospital staff provided a “No Cat Zone,” for non-cat lovers, where even Tom is not allowed entry.
Strangely, even rabid anti-cats are won over by Tom.
There are families who profess to be allergic to cat hair but are soon bringing a treat for Tom. And some the hospital’s staff of more than a thousand brings Tom some food and to pet him.
One time Tom gave the “cold shoulder” to an overnight supervisor who forgot to bring him some treats.
Tom’s contribution to the goals of the hospital is invaluable.
For example, a patient terminally ill with Parkinson’s disease was having speech difficulties. Tom sat on his lap and he started rubbing the cat. This relaxed his vocal chords allowing him to talk again.
In another situation, a veteran’s daughter did not like cats and shut Tom off from his room. One day, she went out for some errands, leaving the door open. Tom went in.
A few minutes later, Tom came out looking for the daughter meowing along the way. When he found her, he kept meowing in front of her until she went back to her Dad’s room. Minutes later her father died.
The daughter was convinced Tom wanted her to be with her father when he passed away.
Tom thinks he is Human:
When the staff holds a meeting shuts the conference room door, Tom would sit outside and meow until he is let in.
He even likes to ride the service vehicle when making its rounds.
He is very zealous with his turf, too. One day a large mastiff came into the hospital as part of its pet therapy program. Immediately Tom jumped into the canine’s back. After that the dog refused to go inside the hospital unless Tom is secured in his room.
Tom is no Accident to Salem VA Medical Center:
Tom is not one of those stray cats who accidentally found refuge in the hospital.
In 2012, Dottie Rizzo, chief nurse of the hospital’s extended care service, together with assistant physician, Laura Hart, read a book titled, Making Rounds with Oscar, by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician. The book is about Oscar, a cat who comforts dementia patients and appear to anticipate when they are about to die.
“We knew we needed a cat just like that,” Rizzo told TODAY. “We enlisted the assistance of a local veterinarian’s office manager who went to a shelter and visited with the cats for a long time before deciding on Tom.”
Apparently they were right.
When Sharon Herndon’s father died at the center, Tom filled a special place in her family’s heart. The experience, motivated the Roanoke, Virginia woman to write, in 2014, a book titled, Tom the Angel Cat. In a footnote, she wrote, “Tom is the final salute to a job well done.”
In the twilight of their lives the elderly veterans of the Medical Center are given comfort and ease through Tom’s silent but lovable ways.
“One day I gave him some of my Ensure vanilla drink and he drank every bit of it. Then he rubbed on me and licked by hands.” These may be simple gestures of gratitude, but for Gearhart who is in the rehabilitation unit for lung cancer treatment, that is a lot.
Tom is a lot of things to the elderly patients of the hospital, but for the staff, he is the appointed counselor and caretaker of the Medical Center.
Why Pets are Important for Seniors:
Several studies have shown the importance of pets to elderly people, especially live alone seniors.
Pets can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase social interaction, provides physical activity and help them learn.
I have no quarrel with that. I am not a cat lover, but as a live alone senior I don’t think I can do without my two aging Labradors.
They provide me comfort when I feel tired and lonely. They see me off when I leave home every afternoon, and meet me with their wagging tails of joy when I get back.
They never complain, never hold a grudge and are always there to fondle, tickle, and play with to break the loneliness and boredom of an old craggy guy’s life.
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